Today at JNC we welcomes another inductee into the 25 Year Club, one that launched exactly 25 years ago, on September 14, 1989. Yes, it’s a car, it’s Japanese, and it’s beloved. But we’re going to go one step further and call it the Best Car Ever Made. Consider this proof: The 1990s produced the best cars of any decade in automotive history and the Honda NSX was the best car of the 90s. Ergo, the NSX was the Best Car Ever Made, QED.
Someday, centuries from now, when humanity has either destroyed itself, achieved the singularity or abandoned our home for the stars, archaeologists from a new species will emerge to examine all that we have achieved. The Pyramids. Culture. Democracy. The art of moving ourselves across land at great speed.
Sure, there have been many things humankind has created with our hands and brains. But rarely in history has there been a machine so unflinchingly good at the one thing it was created to do.
Today, as in 1990, there are cars that are faster, crammed with more microchips, better at conserving dead prehistoric plants and animals. Whatever your metric of goodness is, there’s a carriage out there with bigger numbers on the spec sheet. As a balance of the thousands of interconnected variables that make up a car, though, there’s nothing better than an NSX.
When it debuted, the motoring press fell over themselves to come up with the next superlative. One Sports Car International contributor called it “the most physically exciting car he’s driven since he bought and raced a Porsche Speedster in 1955.” Outside of its normal road tests and comparos, Car and Driver made the unprecedented move of collecting its staff to write a love letter to the NSX. “Our top choice for pure driving pleasure,” noted one. “It’s so precise in its responses… as if it were hard-wired into my cerebellum,” said another. Don Fuller perhaps won this contest when he issued the following decree in the September 1990 volume of Motor Trend:
It’s the best sports car the world has ever produced. Any time. Any place. Any price… far better than any Ferrari or Lamborghini ever built; it makes the Corvette ZR1 look like something contrived under a shade tree… We’ve spent over 100 years developing the automobile. After driving the NSX, it’s been worth the wait.
Its list of production car firsts is too long to list here, but we’ll name a few big ones: the first all-aluminum unibody, which in combination with a revolutionary all-aluminum suspension was 500 pounds lighter than a steel equivalent, the first use of titanium connecting rods and, of course, the first US car to come with VTEC, yo.
Ironically, when you drive an NSX, it’s hard to believe that it was actually made. But it was. Listing its technical accomplishments implies that the experience of the NSX can be somehow broken down and quantified. It can’t. The NSX transcends the sum of its mechanical parts and seems, like a cheetah or a dolphin, as if it has always existed in nature.
The philosophy of the NSX was simple: a race car for the road. Honda returned to Formula One in 1983 and planning for what would become the NSX began soon after. It wasn’t known at the time, but Honda would in a few years come to dominate the sport in an unprecedented manner with its Marlboro-clad, white and red, McLaren-bodied racers.
It wasn’t the first time Honda would break new ground in the world’s most esteemed races, either. Founder Soichiro Honda had always possessed an almost fanatical drive to win at the world’s toughest motorsports. To put his creations through the ringer, he’d even built his own race course, Suzuka Circuit, in 1962. He probably would’ve bankrupted his own company if his products weren’t so damn good.
Coming off a sweeping victory at Isle of Man TT motorcycle race in 1961 — in what was only Honda’s third time participating, no less — Old Man Soichiro decided to tackle the automotive equivalent. Keep in mind that at the time, Honda had barely begun automobile development. Its first production passenger car, the S500, would not be released until 1963. Reportedly, when Honda-san issued the order telling his staff to prepare for the coming F1 project, the response was, “What’s F1?”
Nevertheless, within two years a Honda race car was sitting on the grid of the famed Nürburgring circuit for the start of the ’64 German Grand Prix. A year after that, Honda became the first Japanese automaker to win a Formula One Grand Prix.
Honda-san’s never-say-die spirit translated into a culture of constant envelope-pushing and innovation in his production vehicles as well. The roots of the NSX can be traced back to January 1984, when Honda’s engineers began experimenting with a mid-engined City. It never made it to production, but it lay the groundwork for further research into a MR layout.
The NSX project itself began in earnest in late 1985, under the leadership of Shigeru Uehara. The goal was a car that could “bridge [Honda’s] mass production FF models and F1 cars,” he once explained. It would “become the new face of Honda” and serve as a road car whose performance was “as close as possible to an F1 machine.”
F1 machines and race cars in general, however, aren’t built to last much longer than the duration of the race they’re running. Entire engines and transmissions are rebuilt or replaced after each outing. That was, of course, unacceptable for something wearing the Honda badge, so Uehara vowed to make this F1 machine for the road as dependable as any production Honda. And as you may recall, Hondas ran like clockwork.
By 1986 NSX development was in full swing. Uehara’s team created an aluminum-bodied CR-X prototype to test everything from rigidity to repairability of the new material. They built a base in Mullenbach, a village neighboring the Nürburgring — a return to the site of Honda’s F1 debut — and became the first Japanese automaker to do long-term testing overseas. As the project neared completion in 1989, they even employed F1’s Aryton Senna and Satoru Nakajima as test drivers.
These development techniques are commonplace in the supercar world today, but they were unheard of in 1990, and especially unheard of from a company primarily known for making the Civic. The NSX, though, wasn’t made like the Civic. Honda constructed a brand new plant in Tochigi dedicated to the supercar, where technicians largely hand-built each one. Honda even engineered a brand new aluminum spot-welding machine to create the NSX’s chassis.
The NS-X Concept launched at the 81st Chicago Auto Show to a thunderous reaction. The production car debuted at Honda Verno dealerships in September 1990 and spawned a three-year wait list in Japan. A silver one helped Winston Wolfe shorten his commute from 30 minutes to 10 (9 minutes and 37 seconds, actually). It became the car that defined the decade.
Much of what has been written about the NSX goes something like this: It offered supercar performance but with the comfort and reliability of an Accord. While true, it doesn’t quite capture how revolutionary the notion of drivability was back in 1990. Typical Euro exotics of the era had the usability of a UNIVAC, if UNIVAC also required the strength of the Incredible Hulk to steer and modulate the clutch. They needed $10,000 a year just to continue to do basic car things, and even then, problems that wouldn’t be acceptable in a Tata Nano today were commonplace.
When hunters on the Eastern Steppes first encountered the horse, they didn’t domesticate it because it was prone to eating its rider or having hooves fall off for no reason. A trustworthy companion with which to chase prey and journey, as long as it was fed and cleaned — that was the bargain. The NSX not only made good on that bond, but forced the entire supercar industry to evolve. It bears repeating: Rarely in history has there been a machine so unflinchingly good at the one thing it was created to do.
As recently as three or four years ago, you could still find a pretty mint NSX for about $25,000. That was probably the ground floor for NSX prices, and it’s long gone now. Today, a clean example will set you back $40,000 at a minimum and prices continue to climb. Go any lower and you’ll be relegated to excessive mileages or unfortunately modified rejects from the sport compact era (Though sad, as the holy grail of Japanese cars the NSX was subject to many an import tuners with money but not necessarily taste).
Today, the Tochigi Takanezawa plant is where Honda’s official NSX Refresh Plan takes place. For a price, owners can bring their cars for reconditioning, and it’s clear that Honda wants to keep their crowning achievements on the road. Everything from engine tuning to seat re-upholstery to factory paint can be brought back to like-new condition by the Honda technicians who actually built the cars.
Of all the feats the NSX has accomplished, though, its greatest is perhaps as a barometer of the ascendancy of Japan and its automobile industry. Honda automobiles arrived on American shores in 1970, with a lineup of 600cc hatchbacks. From those four-wheeled motorcycles, it took the house that Soichiro built only a scant 20 years to claw its way to world-trouncing supercars.
The NSX hailed from a time when Japan’s auto industry was run by dreamers, and built things because they wanted to and could. The Japanese marketing tagline for the NSX was “Our dreams come true.” Not your dreams, but our dreams. It could be interpreted as a triumph for the company. Reading it again, though, it seems as if Honda also knew it was giving a gift — one of superior movement — to all of us, collectively, as humankind.
Images courtesy of Honda.